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On the Relationship of First Language Acquisition and Second Language Acquisition
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陈 洁

I. Introduction    

   Language learning refers to the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, comprehend and produce language. It often deals with the first language acquisition(FLA), which studies the child’s acquisition of his mother tongue or native language. This is distinguished from second language acquisition(SLA), which covers the systematic study of how individuals or groups acquire a new language subsequent to their native language. “The first language is almost always learned effortlessly, and with nearly invariant success; second language learning involves many different conditions and processes, and success is far from certain.”Due to significant differences and difficulties, understanding the mutual relationship between FLA and SLA can be of great importance and can help strengthen language learning. The relation between FLA and SLA will be discussed in this paper from the perspective of comparison of similarities and dissimilarities between them.

II. The similarities and differences between first language acquisition and second language acquisition

2.1 The similarities between FLA and SLA

2.1.1 The purpose of language acquisition                                                       

   The purpose of language acquisition is to communicate in real life, the ultimate goal of which is not the form of language, but its function.

2.1.2 Linguistic competence                                 

   What needs to be accounted for in L1 and L2 acquisition is linguistic competence, which refers to the underlying knowledge that speakers have of their language as a system of abstract formal relations. Linguistically, knowing a language means having acquired the grammatical and lexical capacity in that language.

2.1.3 Enough and comprehensible input

   Krashen, the American linguist, put forward the Input Hypothesis in the 1980s, which simply stated, “ Humans acquire language in only one way - by understanding messages or by receiving comprehensible input.” It’s undeniable that both L1 and L2 learners need enough and comprehensible input to gain competence in communication. Either the first or the second language input should be a bit beyond the learners’ current level of competence to prepare them for more complex tasks. Deficiency in enough and accessible input will definitely lead to failure of language acquisition.

2.1.4 Other similarities

   Both L1 and L2 learners tend to master content words before function words. They often neglect or make some mistakes when such function words as inflections or articles are involved. When they start to speak, the meaning of a sentence is usually expresses in holophrastic and telegraphic forms. A number of researchers (Roger Brown, Peter de Villiers, Nathalie Bailey et al) have found out the methods that L1 and L2 learners use to acquire certain grammatical morphemes are similar too. They have also found that either children acquiring negatives and interrogatives or adults learning them is in the similar process.

2.2 The differences between FLA and SLA

2.2.1 Difference in learning environments between FLA and SLA

   To every native speaker, owing to exposing in certain community or language environment themselves, they have been learning or rather acquiring unconsciously since they were born. Muriel Saville-Troike states that children control most of the basic L1 grammatical patterns before they are five or six, though complicated grammatical patterns continue to develop through the school years. Instead of learning consciously in the classroom, preprimary children immerse in their mother tongue in daily life and their gradual capacity to use the language is the results of many subconscious process. On the contrary, SLA is a conscious process since they don’t live in that speech community. The channel of learning is having systematic education in a class where teachers attach great importance to the forms and structures rather then the meaning.

2.2.2 Difference in learners’ ages between FLA and SLA

   Children’s language acquisition starts in infancy, while second language learning begins from as early as 3 or 4 years old to late after one has grown up. A six-month-old infant can produce all the vowel sounds and most of the consonant sounds of any language s/he is exposed to in the world. Before they are three years old, the children can master most of the distinctive sounds of their L1 and an awareness of basic discourse patterns. And as mentioned above, children control most of the basic L1 grammatical patterns before they are five or six. However, due to the facts of motivations, interests, and learning situation, the ages of L2 learners vary greatly. With respect to China, overwhelming majority of people born before 1980s first contacted L2 in junior middle school, namely, in adolescent period. But with the reform and open-door policy, the age of SLA has relatively advanced. Most people born in the 1990s learned an L2 in element school or even kindergarten. Nowadays, English is a compulsory course in primary school. Consequently, most children commence systematically learning words, phrases, simple grammar and discourses of L2 when they are six or seven years old.

2.2.3 Difference in learners’ learning ways between FLA and SLA

   Children acquire their native language with psychological and physical development at the same time, while they need to use the L1 as a medium to change language codes and structures when learning an L2. What L1 learners concern is language’s meaning rather than form or structure. Also they lay stress on the meaning distinctions instead of structure differences. When a child is learning his or her L1, for example, his/her mother will show him/her the real objects and say:“Apple, apple.”; “This is a desk.”. The child then recognizes the distinctions between the things in the real world, which is very different from SLA. Muriel Saville-Troike points out that since SLA follows FLA, a major component of the initial sate for L2 learning must be prior knowledge of L1. L2 learners will ,therefore, use the concepts, the knowledge and the experience of their L1 to facilitate learning and they concern more about structures than meanings. In the classroom, what the teachers focus more on is the differences of sentences structures and grammatical points.

2.2.4 Difference in learners’ learning stages between FLA and SLA

   In general, children’s L1 developments can be divided into four stages, namely, phonological, grammatical, semantic and pragmatic development. Children are all exposed to the L1 environment after birth and they hear it spoken every day. Then one day they begin the process of speaking and later enter a new phrase of reading and writing. However, this is very different from the acquisition order of a second language. When learning an L2, people usually take reading and writing as primary. In traditional second language instruction, teachers put more emphasis on reading and writing skills than the ones of listening and speaking.

2.2.5 Difference in levels of proficiency between FLA and SLA

   People who learn an L2 vary from children learning their L1 in a number of ways, however, perhaps the most striking of all is their levels of proficiency. Troike divides the language development into three states and points out: “The final state of L1 development -by definition- is native linguistic competence. On the other hand, the final state of L2 development-again by definition- can never be totally native linguistic competence, and the level of proficiency which learners reach is highly variable.” No matter how hard they attempt to learn, vast majority of L2 learners will never reach the same competence as native speakers.

III. Conclusion

  From the above, it is safe to say that there exist similarities and differences between first language acquisition and second language acquisition in many aspects and that first language acquisition and second language acquisition are interrelated and influence each other. Through the analysis and study, we can conclude that the process of children’s FLA has great illumination to SLA and the influence of first language cannot be ignored. In short, owing to the similarities and dissimilarities , we can draw lessons from certain rules of first language acquisition and make them facilitate in second language learning.

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